Bessina grew up in the small central North Island town of Raetihi. With both parents involved with gangs – and her father in and out of jail – she says substance abuse was nothing new to her. Nor was physical and sexual abuse, or the trauma caused by parents who, she felt, abandoned her.

Bessina Pehi-Tamatea being awarded the Excellence in Peer Support Award at last month’s Cutting Edge conference.

“In my community, I knew nothing different,” says Bessina. “Using drugs and alcohol was totally normal. The social culture there revolved around alcohol and drugs.”

Yet while being pulled into substance abuse by those around her, she remained a community leader.  She represented her marae on a local Board of Trustees, she was a member of the local fire brigade and she was putting herself through nursing school – all while caring for her father, a dementia sufferer.

An introduction to methamphetamine by a family member had made her feel that she could cope with all of this, made her feel invincible, says Bessina. At the bottom of the rapid and inevitable spiral into the hell of addiction her substance abuse was at the more extreme end of the scale – she was injecting methadone and amphetamine, taking huge amounts of prescribed painkiller Tramadol, sleeping pill Zopiclone, Valium, and washing it all down with a couple of bottles of wine every night.

It was a colleague who answered her late night call for help, when Bessina realised she was going to die if she carried on, that helped her get into the Higher Ground residential programme in Auckland, which is known for its abstinence-based approach.

After three days of treatment and support, Bessina says she thought she was going to die. Her liver was shutting down fast, and she was developing more severe infections by the day. But after a month with the support of those who had ‘been there done that’ – a key aspect of the Higher Ground approach is an emphasis on peer support from former addicts – she was beginning to pull through.

With a clearer mind, spirit and body, Bessina realised that, as someone who had always felt a strong compulsion to help in her community, the best way she could achieve lasting change was to work in addiction recovery herself.  Four years later she is in the final semester of her Bachelor of Counselling degree at Laidlaw College and her dedicated work as a peer support worker was recognised recently by DAPAANZ, the addiction workforce’s professional association who awarded her the Excellence in Peer Support Award at last month’s Cutting Edge conference.

Bessina Pehi-Tamatea (holding mokopuna with He Eke Noa whanau, next to pole) at a methamphetamine hui in Raetihi.

Her peer support work is with Te Ha Oranga’s He Waka Eke Noa, the addiction recovery support group that supported her with her own recovery. The name essentially means means ‘we are all in this canoe together’ and the group utilises kapa haka to help Māori find their voice and in turn find their way to recovery.  Bessina returned to Te Ha Oranga for a clinical placement as a counselling student and was then offered a position.

“My job is to be a role model – to help and support the newcomers into recovery, to help them stay clean and sober every day, by helping them discover tools like wellness recovery action plans.

“The biggest thing is plugging them back into healthy community, because connection is the opposite of addiction. I’m the vehicle that walks beside them, and tries to help them find what works for them.”

Bessina says that the biggest misapprehension among the general public concerning addiction and addicts is the helplessness. Although it’s beginning to change, the idea that addicts are just lazy people – who can’t be bothered making the right choices required to live a stable and productive life – is still deeply ingrained.

While substance abuse is also about pleasure-seeking and escape, Bessina believes that “99.9 percent of addicts” get into trouble because they’ve become disconnected. Often because they’ve experienced serious childhood trauma which has destroyed their ability to trust the world and others living in it.

Answers to addiction crisis

If she could wave a magic funding wand today, Bessina has some strong ideas about how she would use it.

“That’s actually an easy question. For a start, I wouldn’t build any more prisons. Instead I would build rehabilitation facilities, modeled after Higher Ground, which is an intensive therapeutic community that has really effective counselling and psychotherapy on tap.

“It’s also run by people who have lived that experience. Every sort of addiction is eliminated – smoking, caffeine, sugar, even TV.

“The idea is that you get a chance to look within yourself, and engage with yourself. People in recovery have access to therapeutic groups every day. It’s all about reconnecting the dots in people’s lives.

“There’s nothing magic about that wand. It’s totally do-able, we just need to stop punishing people who have already been punished.” 

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